Memories of her Mexican vacation turned sour just two days after Sarah Farrell returned home to Edmonton.

Her phone beeped with a text from Rogers, warning that her roaming charges were "excessively high."

'I felt almost sick to my stomach, because I was, like ‘that’s half a year’s salary.''—Sarah Farrell

Farrell told Go Public she thought she might be facing a bill for $500.

"I had no idea I was going to get a $23,000 cell phone bill," she said. "Which is just insane.

"It just blew my mind that they would let my cell phone bill get that high," Farrell said. "My heart rate was just pounding and I felt almost sick to my stomach, because I was, like ‘that’s half a year’s salary.’"

Thought roaming was turned off

Farrell turned her iPhone to airplane mode as soon as she left Edmonton, though during a stopover in Houston she turned airplane mode off so she could send a text to her mother.

She then got one text from Rogers inviting her to check out their USA data plans, but heard nothing from the company while she was in Mexico, she said.

She used the phone for about an hour every day in her hotel room to post pictures on Facebook and to send texts thinking her phone was using the hotel’s free WiFi.

The next time she heard from Rogers was back in Edmonton 15 days later, when received the text telling her to call them, she said.

Rogers immediately offered to sign her up for a data plan that reduced the bill from $23,000 to $2,200, plus $225 to enrol.

Farrell’s experience with Rogers is almost identical to what happened to Matt Buie with Fido, a Rogers subsidiary.

 In a March 2013 Go Public story, Buie described getting a $22,000 roaming charge after his son streamed videos in Mexico.  In that case Fido also offered to reduce the bill to $2,200.

Similar story prompts Farrell to fight for better deal

Buie’s story prompted her to fight for a better deal. But she’s suspicious as to why the cases are so similar, Farrell said.

"Maybe it is just a generic number, I don’t really know. There is no paperwork showing me the charges were that high. Maybe it was only $2,500."

Rogers now says its customer service agent gave Farrell incorrect information when she first called.

Rogers spokeswoman Jennifer Kett said the correct amount was closer to $10,000, and that the company has taken steps to make sure customers get the correct information.

Rogers recently lowered its pay-per-use rate for Mexico, from $30 per megabyte of data to $15.

Customers never receive whopping bills, says Rogers VP

Raj Doshi, Rogers’s Senior Vice President for Products, insists Farrell and its other customers would never see a bill for over $20,000.

"They do not get billed for that amount of money," he said.

"We have processes in place to monitor usage for customers and flag those instances where either by mistake, or concern for fraud, or in some cases legitimate use, these charges build up. We contacted the customer in order to identify what the situation was and worked to remedy the charges."

Dealing with a Mexican provider could have delayed its warning messages getting to Farrell when she was in Mexico, Doshi said.

Use of sticker shock ‘irresponsible,’ says consumer advocate

Janet Lo, legal counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said it’s "worrisome" that Rogers thinks it's entitled to $23,000 from a consumer.

"Most consumers in Canada would be hard-pressed to be able to afford anything close to that," she said.

"We think it’s irresponsible for a company to think it can get away with charging a customer for usage they never intended to incur, " Lo said, "especially if they’re trying to take technical steps to make sure they don’t."

There’s no way to know if Rogers is gouging consumers like Farrell because the public, and perhaps even the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission, don’t know what Rogers and the other telecoms pay  foreign companies for data, Lo said. 

New law will protect consumers, but Rogers not there yet

When the federal Wireless Code becomes law in December, telecoms will have to suspend a customer’s roaming charges once they exceed $100, unless the customer expressly agrees to pay extra charges.

Telus currently caps its customers’ roaming charges at $200, and sends spending alerts at $10, $50 and $200, but Rogers only offers that protection to customers who have bought a data plan.

"I feel they’re robbing customers, taking advantage of a system that not regulated yet ," Farrell said.

Rogers’s Doshi insists the company supports the Wireless Code.

"It provides a level of consistency across the country that we will work to implement as the months and weeks go by," he said.

Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar, who pushed for the code,  said he’s heard of many cases like Sarah Farrell’s.

"When you purchase a product, you need to be given notice when you’re going above and beyond your contracted price," he said. "And I think it shouldn’t be any different for cellphone companies."

Farrell and Rogers eventually settled at $600.

But she said she’s not waiting for Rogers to comply with the Wireless Code and plans to switch cell phone providers.